I wrote this piece last year and it was one of my earliest stories. Because of some of the discussions I’ve had this week, I decided to pick it, edit it and make it the first short story to be published here. Many thanks to Akintunde, my beta-reader who must be prevented from having headaches.
The night of the first day of the year 2012, my daughter dragged her feet into the sitting room, her face sullen because her mother had just spanked her butt in the kitchen for reasons I do not know. I was watching TV. There were typical first-day-of-the-year stories on the news: churches celebrating a change in calendar in bright coloured dresses, parks teeming with boisterous families, and streets filled with giddy young men and women shouting “Happy New year” to no one in particular, their voices drenched by the pop of fire-crackers and boom of party speakers.
“Daddy, why is the New Year happy” Kelechi asked.
“The New Year is happy because you are happy”
“But I’m not happy”
I smiled and placed her on my laps. A popular church was on the news and its members were shown dancing and dropping Naira bills in large, open aluminium bowls. Perfect way to shame them into paying well, I thought. She shifted on my laps and I snapped out of my reverie.
“You will be happy if you remain a good girl all through the year.”
She focused her eyes beyond the TV as if she was trying to make a strong decision and said “I promise to be a good girl this year. I want the year to be happy”.
“And I promise to buy you a very big gift if you make the year happy by being good.”
She hugged me with her wiry arms, plopped down from my laps and slapped her feet on the tiles as she rushed to meet her mother, who was carrying a steaming bowl of rice in one hand, a bowl of stew that I could smell its pepper in the other and balanced a plate of meat on her head.
“Kelechi, better stay where you are or we’ll be eating this food off the floor”
My daughter stood still as if her mother’s voice was a remote control. She inherited all of her mother’s playfulness and need for adventure, so she seldom obeys instruction at the first issue. As I looked at her huge black eyes—same as her mother’s—fixed on my wife’s hands, I realized that she really wants to be a good girl.
My daughter’s resolve held on as the cold billowing winds of harmattan gave way to the heat of march that torments those not rich enough to afford a life cooled by air conditioners. Radio and TV broadcasts of impending rainfall became a daily fixture. One day in the last week of June I sat in the sitting room with my wife who was asleep—or pretending to be asleep—with her head nestling in the space between my neck and shoulder. Another weather forecast was made, repeating the warnings of the coming storms. I glanced at the LG split-unit air conditioner humming away into the night and I wondered if it was all a joke.
Prayer for rain became a permanent part of the agenda in churches as June gave way to July. The nation had come from fears about rain storms to praying for downpour. On the Monday of the second week in July, I was trying to tie the perfect knot in preparation for work when Folakemi, my wife, came into the bathroom.
“Can I take your car out today, please?”
“My car? Why didn’t you tell me that yesterday?”
“I want to go to the market to stock for the month, and you know that rain we’ve been praying for might just fall today”
I looked at her face in the mirror and her large eyes were doing that darling-please look they seem to have been created for. I sighed “Okay, have it your way. Just bring it back in one piece”.
Wham! The back of my neck stung from the impact of a comb.
“Have I ever damaged your car before?”
I opened my mouth to protest but she raised her index finger and started to wag it in front of her face. “No, no, no, no… That was just a scratch and I told you that Okada man was partially blind.”
I wanted to say that her car was in the panel-beater’s shop because she had hit it against the back of the pick-up of another blind old man, but I just smiled. There are times when I’ll wrestle the comb from her and hit her back, but that is just an invitation to a morning of horseplay for Folakemi.
“I hear you. Just drop Kelechi in school early enough” I said on my way out of the bathroom.
“Why do you think I’m in the bathroom at this time of the day?” she replied.
I heard her feet do the shuffle I was expecting—her victory dance.
Ibadan might not be Lagos yet, but Ring-road had developed a habit of causeless traffic-jams around 7:30 in the morning. So I hurried into Kelechi’s room, kissed her on the forehead and her body ruffled as if she would wake up. She held her right fist above her head and the other behind her. She was doing the Power-puff girls sleep again. I stepped out into the sluggish streets of Apete, heard a distant rumbling of the clouds and thought, “Maybe Folake is right and today might be the day for the rain”.
Around ten thirty that morning, the usual whirring sound of counting machines and bickering of aggrieved account holders was drowned by the splatter of raindrops on the roof. The drops sounded like bombshells that would shatter the windows and create a crater in the middle of the banking hall. A steward switched off one of the industrial air conditioners and activities on the floor slowed down. The stranded customers sat, others stood and talked to themselves in whispers.
I watched a mother run her fingers through her daughter’s hair as she hugged and rocked the toddler while seating on the stiff chairs of the banking hall. The girl, who looked like she was Kelechi’s age, closed her eyes and said something to her mother. The woman laughed, the child frowned and I wondered why she was not in school. I remembered Folake’s prophecy in the morning and dialed her phone number to hear her shout “I told you so”, but it did not go through.
Around noon, there was a lull in the rain and the customers hurried out of the bank. They knew the rain was just taking a step backwards like the proverbial ram that tries to garner more strength and they did not wait to be caught in its next big wave. I looked out of the window and watched the mother carry her daughter on her back and dash between cars that had flooded the road. I dialed Folake’s number and it didn’t go through again. I assumed it was her blackberry—which Kelechi had nicknamed Beans after the girl in the Rango movie who was always freezing in the middle of speech—acting up as usual. I made a mental note to buy her a new phone at the end of the month and started to balance accounts for the day. The rain resumed its torrent as the bank’s closing time approached and for a moment I forgot Folake and Kelechi.
When I try to remember the hours and days that followed that moment, all I recall is walking on the bank of Awotan, scampering between deserted houses and filthy streets devastated by the river’s wrath, explaining to strangers that I was looking for my wife and kid, holding up their picture and trying to shut off their “Eeyah, God will help you find them” accompanied with a sympathetic shake of the head.
I watched young couples try to salvage what was left of their scanty furniture; a particular pair was having a good laugh as they tore wet books, rolled them into balls and threw the missiles at each other. I wanted to walk up to them and push the picture—mother and daughter seated on a couch, smiling at the camera—in their faces. But I decided not to soil their fleeting happiness with my misery.
I continued further down the river bank, thinking of scenarios they could be in: stuck in a village on the river’s path, being taken care of by some strangers; walking back by foot, mother and daughter holding hands and singing Barnie songs. I rehearsed my joy and reserved it for the moment they would be found. Father, mother and daughter locked in a tight embrace with tears flowing without end.
I would hear of bodies dug up and rush to the emergency centre, despair flooding my heart as I opened blankets covering bodies and inspected swollen faces before telling the volunteers, “No, it’s not them”.
The day we finally found them, it was in a bush further along Awotan’s path, outside Ibadan. The car had been washed downstream by the flood and had become a coffin for mother and daughter who were locked in an embrace with fear and pain etched on their faces. As the volunteers carried their bodies out of the car, Beans—the Blackberry—dropped on the floor. I picked it and brown water drained out of its charging port. I wondered if it had frozen before the car drowned, or if she had been trying to call me as they went down. I imagined her shouting at the phone “Beans come on; you have to work now. You can’t afford to die on me”.
They were buried that day in a doleful ceremony attended by friends and a few members of family. The next day, I was in Peace Motor Park, boarding a bus to Anambra state en-route Ogidi—my mother’s village.
I’ve been here for two months, doing nothing but wake up every morning, sit in front of the house, and watch the incessant rain render everything around me soggy and depressing. Their memories are always with me. I can’t close my eyes to sleep without feeling Folake’s breath on my neck, can’t eat without Kelechi’s voice bombarding my ears with questions beyond her years. I can’t walk without feeling their hands in mine, one trying to hold me close to her and the other trying to wring out of my hold and skip across puddles of water.
I haven’t shed tears because it’s all surreal to me. It feels like a dream from which I’ll wake up or a vision projected into my memory, to be erased when the experiment is done. It is like time has stopped from the moment I saw their faces in the car that evening and I’m still waiting for the man with the remote to press play and declare the end of the skit. I still look forward to that moment when I’ll fulfill my promise and give my daughter her gift for making the year happy.
At the graveside, the Pastor asked me to take heart because they have gone to a better place, a happy place. Now, this is why I’m writing this to you: please tell me why I shouldn’t go and join them.
Postscript: As I edited this story, Brooke Fraser’s Flags was on repeat in my mind. You can listen to it here.
See you next week Friday when I post another story. Please leave a comment and hit the follow button.